The Secret History of G.I. Joe (Part 1)

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Barbie, Joe, Darth Vader, and making war in children’s culture.

[The following excerpt, from Tom Engelhardt’s book, The End of Victory Culture, is posted with permission from the University of Massachusetts
Press, and originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.

1. The First Coming of
G.I. Joe

It was 1964,
and in Vietnam
thousands of American “advisers” were already offering up their know-how from
helicopter seats or gun sights. The United States was just a year short of
sending its first large contingent of ground troops there, adolescents who would
enter the battle zone dreaming of John Wayne and thinking of enemy-controlled
territory as “Indian country.” Meanwhile, in that inaugural year of Lyndon
Johnson’s Great Society, a new generation of children began to experience the
American war story via the most popular toy warrior ever created.

His name, G.I.
— for “Government Issue” — Joe was redolent of America’s last victorious war and
utterly generic. There was no specific figure named Joe, nor did any of the
“Joes” have names. “He” came in four types, one for each service, including the
Marines. Yet every Joe was, in essence, the same. Since he was a toy of the
Great Society with its dreams of inclusion, it only took a year for his
manufacturer, Hasbro, to produce a “Negro Joe,” and two more to add a she-Joe
(a nurse, naturally). Joe initially came with no story, no instructions, and no
enemy, because it had not yet occurred to adults (or toy makers) not to trust
the child to choose the right enemy to pit against Joe.

In TV ads of
the time, Joe was depicted as the most traditional of war toys. Little boys in
World War II-style helmets were shown entering battle with a G.I. Joe tank, or
fiercely displaying their Joe equipment while a chorus of deep, male voices
sang (to the tune of “The Halls of Montezuma”), “G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe, Fighting
man from head to toe on the land, on the sea, in the air.” He was “authentic”
with his “ten-inch bazooka that really works,” his “beachhead flame thrower,”
and his “authentically detailed replica” of a U.S. Army Jeep with its own
“tripod mounted recoilless rifle” and four “rocket projectiles.”

He could take
any beach or landing site in style, dressed in “the real thing,” ranging from
an “Ike” jacket with red scarf to a “beachhead assault fatigue shirt,” pants,
and field pack. He could chow down with his own mess kit, or bed down in his
own “bivouac-pup tent set.” And he was a toy giant, too, nearly a foot tall.
From the telltale pink scar on his cheek to the testosterone rush of
fierce-faced ad boys shouting, “G.I. Joe, take the hill!” he seemed the picture
of a manly fighting toy.

Yet Joe, like
much else in his era, was hardly what he seemed. Launched the year Lyndon
Johnson ran for president as a peace candidate against Barry Goldwater while
his administration was secretly planning the large-scale bombing of North Vietnam,
Joe, too, was involved in a cover-up. For if Joe was a behemoth of a toy
soldier, he was also, though the word was unmentionable, a doll. War play Joe-style was, in fact,
largely patterned on and due to a “girl” — Mattel’s Barbie.

The Secret History of Joe

Barbie had
arrived on the toy scene in 1958 with a hard expression on her face and her
nippleless breasts outthrust, a reminder that she, too, had a secret past. She
was a breakthrough, the first “teenage” doll with a “teenage” figure. However,
her creator, Ruth Handler, had modeled her not on a teenager but on a German
tabloid comic strip “playgirl” named Lili, who, in doll form, was sold not to
children but to men “in tobacconists and bars… as an adult male’s pet.” As Joe
was later to hit the beaches, so Barbie took the fashion salons, malt shops,
boudoirs, and bedrooms, fully accessorized, and with the same undercurrent of
exaggeration. (The bigger the breasts, after all, the better to hang that
Barbie Wedding Gown on.)

Joe was the
brainstorm of a toy developer named Stanley Weston, who was convinced that boys
secretly played with Barbie and deserved their own doll. Having loved toy
soldiers as a child, he chose a military theme as the most acceptable for a
boy’s doll and took his idea to Hassenfeld Brothers (later renamed Hasbro), a
toy company then best known for producing Mr. Potato Head.

In those days,
everyone in the toy business knew that toy soldiers were three-inch-high,
immobile, plastic or lead figures, and the initial response to Joe ranged from
doubt to scorn to laughter; but Merrill Hassenfeld, one of the two brothers
running the company, called on an old friend, Major General Leonard Holland,
head of the Rhode Island National Guard, who offered access to weaponry,
uniforms, and gear in order to design a thoroughly accurate military figure.
Joe was also given a special “grip,” an opposable thumb and forefinger, all the
better to grasp those realistic machine guns and bazookas, and he was built
with 21 movable parts so that boys could finally put war into motion.

Brothers confounded the givens of the toy business by selling $16.9 million
worth of Joes and equipment in Joe’s first year on the market, and after that
things only got better. In this way was a warrior Adam created from Eve’s
plastic rib, a tough guy with his own outfits and accessories, whom you could
dress, undress, and take to bed — or tent down with, anyway. But none of this
could be said. It was taboo at Hasbro to call Joe a doll. Instead, the company
dubbed him a “poseable action figure for boys,” and the name “action figure”
stuck to every war-fighting toy to follow. So Barbie and Joe, hard breasts and
soft bullets, the exaggerated bombshell and the touchy-feely scar-faced
warrior, came to represent the shaky gender stories of America at
decade’s end, where a secret history of events was slowly sinking to the level
of childhood.

For a while,
all remained as it seemed. But Joe underwent a slow transformation that Barbie
largely escaped (though in the early 1970s, facing the new feminism, her sales
did decline). As the Vietnam
years wore on, Joe became less and less a soldier. Protest was in the air. As
early as 1966, a group of mothers dressed in Mary Poppins outfits picketed the
toy industry’s yearly trade convention in New York, their umbrellas displaying the
slogan, “Toy Fair or Warfare?” Indeed, Sears dropped all military toys from its
catalog. According to Tomart’s Guide to
Action Figure Collectibles
, “In the late ’60s… [f]earing a possible
boycott of their ‘war-oriented toy,’ Hasbro changed Joe’s facial appearance and
wardrobe. Flocked hair and a beard were added to the figures. Hasbro liquidated
strictly military-looking pieces in special sets, and by 1970 the G.I. Joe
Adventure Team was created.”

Now, Joe was
teamed with his first real enemies, but they weren’t human. There was the tiger
of the “White Tiger Hunt,” the “hammerhead stingray” of “Devil of the Deep,”
the mummy of “Secret of the Mummy’s Tomb,” and the “black shark” of “Revenge of
the Spy Shark,” as well as assorted polar bears, octopi, vultures, and a host
of natural enemies in toy sets like “Sandstorm Survival.” For the first time,
in those years of adult confusion, some indication of plot, of what exactly a
child should do with these toys, began to be incorporated into titles like “The
Search for the Stolen Idol” or “The Capture of the Pygmy Gorilla.” Not only was
Joe now an adventurer, but his adventure was being crudely outlined on the
packaging that accompanied him; and few of these new adventures bore any
relationship to the war story into which he had been born.

This hipper,
new Joe was, if not exactly gaining a personality, then undergoing a
personalizing process. He no longer appeared so military with his new
hairstyles and his “A” (for adventure) insignia, which, as Katharine Whittemore
has pointed out, “looked just a bit like a peace sign.” In fact, he was
beginning to look suspiciously like the opposition, fading as a warrior just as
he was becoming a less generic doll. By 1974, he had even gained a bit of an
oriental touch with a new “kung-fu grip.” In 1976, under the pressure of the
increased cost of plastic, he shrank almost four inches; and soon after, he
vanished from the scene. He was, according to Hasbro, “furloughed,” and as far
as anyone then knew, consigned to toy oblivion.

Stripping War Out of the Child’s World

In this he was
typical of the rest of the war story in child culture in those years. It was as
if Vietnamese sappers had reached into the American homeland and blasted the
war story free of its ritualistic content, as if the “Indians” of that moment
had sent the cavalry into flight and unsettled the West. So many years of
Vietnamese resistance had transformed the pleasures of war-play culture into
atrocities, embarrassments to look at. By the 1970s, America’s cultural products seemed
intent either on critiquing their own mechanics and myths or on staking out
ever newer frontiers of defensiveness.

Take Sgt. Rock,
that heroic World War II noncom of DC Comics’ Our Army at War series. Each issue of his adventures now
sported a new seal that proclaimed, “make WAR no more,” while his resolutely
World War II-bound adventures were being undermined by a new enemy-like
consciousness. The cover of a June 1971 issue, for instance, showed the
intrepid but shaken sergeant stuttering “B-but they were civilians!” and
pointing at the bodies of five men, none in uniform, who seemed to have been
lined up against a wall and executed. Next to him, a GI, his submachine gun
still smoking, exclaims, “I stopped the enemy, Rock! None of ’em got away!”

Inside, an
episode, “Headcount,” told the “underside” of the story of one Johnny Doe, a
posthumously decorated private, who shoots first and asks later. “Hold it,
Johnny!” yells Rock as Private Doe is about to do in a whole room of French
hostages with their Nazi captors, claiming they’re all phonies, “if you’re
wrong… we’re no better’n the nazi butchers we’re fightin’ against!” Of Doe,
killed by Rock before he can murder the hostages, the story asked a final
question that in 1971 would have been familiar to Americans of any age: “Was
Johnny Doe a murderer — or a hero? That’s one question each of you will have
to decide for yourselves!”

Two months later, in the August issue of Our Army at War, a reader could enter
the mind of Tatsuno Sakigawa in “Kamikaze.” Sakigawa, about to plunge his plane
into the USS Stevens, recalls
“when his mother held him close and warm! He remembered the fishing junk on
which they lived… the pungent smell of sea and wind… he was at another place…
in a happier time.” As his plane is hit by antiaircraft fire and explodes, you
see his agonized face. “FATHER… MOTHER … WHERE ARE YOU?” he screams.

The scene cuts
briefly to his parents on their burning junk (“H-help us… my son… help…”), and
then to a final image of “the flames rising from Japan’s burning cities! Houses of
wood and paper… his own home.” Tatsuno Sakigawa, the episode concludes, “died
for the emperor… for country… for honor! But mostly… to avenge the death of his
parents! The destruction of his home! The loss of his own life!” At page
bottom, below DC’s pacifist seal of approval, was a “historical note: 250,000
Japanese died in the fire raids… 80,000 died in the Hiroshima A-bombing.”

Even in that
most guarded of sanctuaries, the school textbook, the American story began to
disassemble. First in its interstices, and then in its place emerged a series
of previously hidden stories. In the late 1960s, textbooks rediscovered “the
poor,” a group in absentia since the 1930s. By the early 1970s, the black
story, the story of women, the Chicano story, the Native American story — all
those previously “invisible” narratives — were emerging from under the
monolithic story of America that had previously been imposed on a nation of
children. Similarly, at the college level, histories of the non-European world
emerged from under the monolithic “world” story that had once taken the student
from Egypt to
twentieth-century America
via Greece, Rome,
medieval Europe, and the Renaissance.

These new
“celebratory” tales of the travails and triumphs of various “minorities” arose
mainly as implicit critiques of the One American Story that had preceded them
or as self-encapsulated and largely self-referential ministories like that new
TV form, the miniseries. In either case, they proved linkable to no larger
narrative, though in the 1980s they would all be gathered up willy-nilly under
the umbrella of “multi-culturalism.”

celebratory, they needed no actual enemy, but implicitly the enemy was the very
story that had until recently made them invisible. They were something like
interest groups competing for a limited amount of just emptied space. The
national story, which was supposed to be inclusive enough to gather in all
those “huddled masses,” which had only a few years earlier allowed textbook
writers to craft sentences like, “We are too little astonished at the
unprecedented virtuous-ness of U.S. foreign policy, and at its good sense,” had
now been cracked open.

By the time Saigon fell in 1975, children like adults existed in a
remarkably story-less realm. The very word war
had been stripped out of children’s culture and childhood transformed into
something like an un-American event. The subterranean haunted and haunting
quality of children in the 1950s had risen to the surface. The young were now
openly threatening adults. Some were challenging American power with evidence
of the destruction of minority children at home or out there (“Hey, hey, LBJ,
how many kids did you kill today?”), while others, whether as political
radicals, part of the counterculture, or GIs in Vietnam, seemed in the process
of defecting to the Eastern enemy.

paradoxically, that victorious enemy was nowhere in sight — not in the movies,
not on TV (despite the image of Vietnam
as a television war), not even in the press. Where the Vietnamese should have
been, there was instead an absence. Because it was impossible to “see” who had
defeated the United States
and hence why Americans had lost, it was impossible to grasp what had been
lost. So American victimhood, American loss — including the loss of
childhood’s cultural forms — became a subject in itself, the only subject, you
might say, while the invisibility of the foe who had taken the story away lent
that loss a particular aura of unfairness.

So, in a final,
strange reversal in that era of reversals, American postwar “reconstruction”
would begin not in Vietnam, the land in ruins, which should have been but was
not the defeated country, but at home in a land almost untouched by war, which
should have been but was not the victor; and the rebuilding would focus not on
some devastated physical environment but on the national psyche. In this
postwar passage from John Wayne to Sylvester Stallone, from Pax Americana to Pecs
Americana, this attempt to rebuild a furloughed American narrative of triumph,
children were to play a special role.

2. Empty Space

On the evening
of May 25, 1977, a dazed 32-year-old movie director, with one success to his
name, was finishing a Herculean two weeks “mixing” his latest film for European
audiences. Breaking for dinner, he and his wife headed for Hamburger Hamlet, a
restaurant across the street from Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, only to run into heavy traffic and
sizable crowds. Coming around a corner, he spied the title of his new film in
giant letters on the theater marquee. It was opening day. “I said, ‘I don’t
believe this,'” he recalled. “So we sat in Hamburger Hamlet and watched the
giant crowd out there, and then I went back and mixed all night… I felt it was
some kind of aberration.”

Director George
Lucas had already celebrated his teenage years in American Graffiti (“Where were you in ’62?”), the surprise
hit of 1973, which sparked a wave of nostalgia for the years before Vietnam and
inspired the TV series Happy Days
(1974). As a moviemaker, however, he had had a desire to reach even deeper into
his California
boyhood, to return to those moments when he had acted out World War II
scenarios with toy soldiers, or watched old Flash Gordon serials, cowboy and
war films on television.

Like movie
audiences (as box office receipts of the time indicated), he wanted to reverse
the cinematic cannibalism of the 1960s. In this, he stood apart from directors
as disparate as Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Mel Brooks, and
his own mentor Francis Ford Coppola, who for years had been dismantling space
and horse operas, war and detective films; in fact, all familiar on-screen

“There’s a
whole generation,” he would later say, “growing up without any kind of fairy
tales.” Although he undoubtedly identified with the countercultural politics of
the time, his was a conservative vision. Instinctively, he wanted to still the
mocking voices and return the movie audience not just to his own childhood but
to a childlike viewing state.

Throughout the
early 1970s, he struggled to construct a script that would rebuild the missing
war story in outer space. The heavens had been empty since, at the end of the
1960s, Stanley Kubrick blasted an American astronaut into a fetal state in 2001: A Space Odyssey; Planet of the Apes
took its astronauts on a mocking journey to a post-nuclear Earth where humans
were not the dominant species; and the USS Enterprise
of TV’s Star Trek left the
“final frontier” to be mothballed.

In 1975, Lucas
signed on with Twentieth Century Fox to produce a space film that (he reassured
his wife) “ten-year-old boys would love.” To make it, he had his costume
designer study books on World War II uniforms and Japanese armor, while he
turned to films ranging from Frank Capra’s Battle
of Britain
(1943) to The
Bridges at Toko-Ri
(1954) to construct dogfights in space. In
casting, he avoided white ethnics like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, who had
played on-screen rebels for years, in favor of unknown WASP-y actors who might
bring to mind the one-dimensional whiteness of his movie past.

Summoning up
enemies from his screen childhood, he patterned his evil emperor on Ming, ruler
of Mongo in Flash Gordon (as
well as on Richard Nixon), and cloaked his dark Jedi, Darth Vader, in gleaming
black visor and body suit. Although there would be no blacks on screen, he
hired the black actor James Earl Jones to play Vader’s hissing techno-voice. In
Chewbacca, the “Wookie” with the Mexican cartridge belts strung across his
hairy chest, the Others of the previous decade from ascendant ape to Native
American would be returned to their rightful place. This nonwhite would not
even be capable of Hollywood-style broken English; only of King Kong-ish howls
of frustration or rage (made by mixing bear, walrus, seal, and badger calls).

In early 1977,
the almost finished film seemed an unlikely candidate for success. Fox’s
research showed that the word war
in a title would turn off women, that robots would turn off everyone, and that
science fiction was a dead category. Fox’s board of directors had only
reluctantly financed the film; and at a special screening, those directors who
did not go to sleep were outraged. As movie theater owners showed little
enthusiasm, the film opened in only 32 theaters nationwide.

Not in his
wildest flights of fancy did Lucas imagine that his cinematic vision would
sweep all before it, that his reconquest of a child audience and of “the kids
in all of us” would be crucial to the reconstruction of a narrative of triumph,
that he would help give a new look of entertainment to the design of war and
reintroduce the spectacle of slaughter to the many screens of America.

The Look of Star Wars Enters the World of War

About two years
before Star Wars opened, a
20-year-old MIT student, Peter Hagelstein, applied for a fellowship to the
Hertz Foundation. Among its board members was Edward Teller, “father” of the
H-bomb and a founder of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a government
nuclear weapons research facility in Northern California.
Although John D. Hertz (of rental car fame) had set up the fellowships to
“foster the technological strength of America” vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and
some recipients were recruited into Livermore’s weapons research by those
interviewing them, the foundation advertised only that “[t]he proposed field of
graduate study must be concerned with applications of the physical sciences to
human problems, broadly construed.”

Hagelstein was
offered a fellowship and a summer job at Livermore
by Lowell Wood, his interviewer and head of Livermore’s O Group. Its young scientists
were working on designing a “third generation” of nuclear weapons (the first
two being the A and H bombs). According to Hagelstein, Wood told him only that
they were working on “lasers and laser fusion, which I had never heard of
before, and he said there were computer codes out there that were like playing
a Wurlitzer organ. It all sounded kind of dreamy… The lab made quite an
impression, especially the guards and barbed wire. When I got to the personnel
department it dawned on me that they worked on weapons here, and that’s about
the first I knew about it.”

In the summer
of 1976, he went there full time, while continuing Ph.D. work at MIT. He was a
young man who “hated bombs” and “didn’t want to be associated with anything
nuclear.” He was even romantically involved with an antinuclear activist who
picketed the lab. But he was held by a dream of creating a laboratory x-ray
laser that would allow scientists to “see” various biological processes, and by
the appealing young men of O Group, with their jeans and long hair, all-night
work habits, countercultural élan, and perverse humor. (Once, they even “took
up a collection” to buy Lowell Wood a Darth Vader costume.)

The year that Star Wars soared into box office
heaven, a senior O Group scientist came up with a new concept for using a
nuclear explosion to “pump” enough focused energy into a laser to turn it into
a weapon. In the summer of 1979, Hagelstein appeared at a meeting where the use
of an underground nuclear explosion to test out the idea was being discussed.
Dazed from 20 straight hours of work, he made a suggestion — “The mouth just
said it” — that was to lead to a laser device dubbed Excalibur and
successfully tested in November 1980. While Hagelstein’s dream of a laboratory
x-ray laser faded, “his” weapon became the centerpiece of a different sort of

In February
1981, the trade journal Aviation Week and
Space Technology
reported the x-ray laser’s heavily classified
existence, saying that, “mounted in a laser battle station” in space, it had
“the potential to blunt a Soviet nuclear weapons attack.” The magazine’s
account was accompanied by a hyper-realistic, futuristic “artist’s drawing”
showing a snazzy battle station that “bristled with long laser rods,” an image
the mainstream media picked up, thus marrying the look of war to the look of Star Wars.

By 1982, Teller
had taken news of Peter Hagelstein’s laser directly to Ronald Reagan. Space
lasers and other third-generation weapons, he assured the president, “by
converting hydrogen bombs into hitherto unprecedented forms and by directing
these in highly effective fashions against enemy targets would end the MAD
[Mutual Assured Destruction] era and commence a period of assured survival on
terms favorable to the Western alliance.” Even a young weapons researcher whose
doctoral thesis (“Physics of Short Wavelength Laser Design”) mentioned three
science fiction novels featuring beam weapons could hardly have imagined that
one spaced-out suggestion would become a crucial part of a multibillion-dollar
national fantasy to create a “protective shield” over the reconstruction of war
on Earth.

Part 2 of this story will appear Thursday, August 15.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project
and author of
The United States of Fear,
runs the Nation Institute’s This post is excerpted from his history of the
Cold War,
The End of Victory Culture(just published in a Kindle edition), with the permission of its publisher, the University of
Massachusetts Press

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Tom Engelhardt and University
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